Monday, May 21, 2012

Story Element #2: Conflict - The Secret Science Project that Almost Ate the School by Judy Sierra

I had a wonderful weekend racing around at my son's 8th birthday party. They rode bicycles and had a blast. Pizza for lunch and four cakes later, I can't believe he's EIGHT! Okay, there was technically only one birthday cake, but the first three were experiments. Did you know that Crisco and a light dusting of flour work wonders to get a cake to freely fall out of a nonstick pan? The "bad" cakes were gone by Sunday night... (Pigs!)

And for today's topic: CONFLICT. I read a great quote recently about conflict: "The heart of storytelling is conflict. Without conflict, a story is not a story." 

Definition: n. To be incompatible. A fight or war. Sharp disagreement, as of interests or ideas. Emotional disturbance due to conflicting impulses, ideas, etc. I know that you're not supposed to use the word in the definition of that word, but the dictionary DID!

The first three story elements on my Top Ten list are:
  1. Character
  2. Conflict
  3. Plot
They all kind of go hand in hand. You can't have a story without any of them. Another quote, which I now can't find, goes something like this: Character creates plot and plot creates character. You know, the age-old question as to whether a book is more character-driven or plot-driven. Really a story needs to be both. I think sometimes when we hear that a book is more plot-driven, it means the characters weren't as fleshed out as the readers would have liked. When a character encounters conflict, the plot unfolds. Conflict creates plot by giving our story a purpose, a reason to be told. Conflict creates rising action, a very important part of plot. Conflict is the action the character takes. The sequence of several conflicting events becomes the plot by way of the character choosing to take action. A good story seamlessly weaves all three together. But, alas, today's focus is CONFLICT.

Conflict must be clear. We must know who or what is up against our main characters. We must understand what is at stake. Through the writing of our first drafts, we can journey through the conflict to find out where our character will end up. We must know the conflict. We don't have to know the ending, though many will argue. Or maybe we know the ending, but we have no idea how we'll get there. Enter CONFLICT. Deal with it. Help your character battle it. Through conflict, our stories will also have action and suspense. 
  • Action = happenings
  • Suspense = uncertainty
There are several different types of conflict, but the three main types of conflict are:
  1. Man vs. self (a battle that takes place in the character's own mind)
  2. Man vs. man (conflict between main character and another character, the antagonist, the villain)
  3. Man vs. nature (man against natural disasters, disease, or animals)
In the following weeks and months, I'll go into more depth on each with more specific types of conflict and examples. I've seen all three in picture books. Today's picture book is...
Title: The Secret Science Project That Almost Ate the School
Author: Judy Sierra
Illustrator: Stephen Gammell
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Year: 2006
Word Count: 584

This is an example of man vs. nature. Sierra is a master rhymer. The book opens:
I was grumpy, I was grouchy, I was slouching in my chair.
I was thinking grim and gloomy thoughts about the science fair.
Miranda bragged her rocket ship could travel to the moon.
Alexander taught his hamster how to sing a tune.
The ants on Mary's ant farm were growing corn and peas,
And Kevin Fink was on the brink of curing a disease.
When asked what her project would be, she replied, "It's secret." She ends up ordering one online (the little cheater). When it arrives, she opens the box and pokes it. Then it gets angry, eats her cat, then her sister, then her dad. The blob follows her to school where it proceeds to eat her teacher. It keeps getting larger and eats her classmates. The conflict mounts. This slimy "beast" is taking over. What will she do? This is clearly not what she had envisioned. She is at war. She remembers the instructions that she folded and placed in her pocket upon opening the package. She follows the directions. It grows bigger. Finally, it bursts into a cloud of gas. The conflict winds down. The people are found lounging around the hillside and in a tree. She didn't win first prize. She had to clean up the mess. But at least she's not fighting against the slimy blob anymore. She saved the people. She saved the school. And the final two lines of the very last page give that classic picture book surprise ending with a bit of humorous suspense, but in a very satisfying way. *wink wink* 

For an excellent lesson in rhyme and a bit of word play, READ THIS BOOK! I read this book at a church talent show and threw candy into the audience. It was a HUGE hit! Sure wish I'd written it. I bet this would be a FUN book to listen at an author visit.

Today's assignment: Look at one of your mss. Write out what the character is fighting for or against. Tell how the conflict gets bigger and worse. Write down how it is resolved. If you can't do it in a paragraph, try summarizing your story aloud. Make sure there are some serious stakes. Take a closer look at this book. Try to copy the patterns. Try cutting words. It really can help. Good luck! 

You can still check out Story Element #2: CharacterNext week is Story Element #3: Plot.

Keep on keepin' on...


  1. the book sounds like an interesting read. I love the rhyme. :)great tips!

  2. Great post, Christie. You don't have to have conflict in a concept pb right?

  3. I wouldn't think so either, Catherine. Although it couldn't hurt to throw in a bit of suspense if at all possible. Concept books for the youngest listeners seem to be purely that, a concept book.

    Nutshell, the rhyme in this book is fabulous! I love all the internal rhyme too.

  4. Wonderful post! Conflict is my biggest obstacle. I'm in conflict with conflict! I'm pretty sure when I try this assignment, I'll rediscover what I already know. The stakes are ALWAYS too low in my stories. Thanks for the great tips.

  5. Not only is this a great post about conflict, but I can't WAIT to read that book! :-)

  6. This is a very succinct and helpful post on conflict, Christie, and I LOVE the sound of this book! The internal rhyme is so clever... and that introductory paragraph is a brilliant hook!

  7. Great post, Christie. I've been thinking a lot about conflict lately. Maybe that's why my characters keep winding up in unexpected situations!

  8. Conflict is one of my biggest issues too. Even in real life. I run from it. I'm a peacemaker.

    Julie, you will LOVE that book!

  9. Joanna, the internal rhyme in this book is not the only clever thing about it. The illustrations and text truly go hand in hand. I love it!

  10. I think higher stakes conflict it just what I need to focus on today. And that book sounds great - I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the post!

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